Summer in the nursery is time to keep everything alive and thriving. We’ve finished the spring grafting, have mounded up our apple and cherry root stock in the ‘stool bed’ and the next major action will happen in late summer.
Couch grass is a big problem in the nursery if left unchecked. Since we rotary hoed the rows before planting into them, it’s made the soil nice and loose but also chopped and spread the couch around. The only thing for it is to stay on top of it and pull it out, roots and all, whenever we see it. Merv is master weeder and a lot more diligent than Katie and me (thanks Merv!).
Watering, composting, and stripping off growth from below the graft are all the things that keep our little trees happy over summer.
The cherry grafts we did in September are looking amazing at the moment. We grafted about half our cherry root stocks, the best of which will be up for sale this winter. We had a really good strike rate and the ones that haven’t taken we’ll be able to bud along with the rest of the root stocks in late summer. The budded root stock take a bit longer and will be ready in two winters’ time.
We’ve also been ‘heading’ some of the more vigorous of our apple, cherry and peach seedlings. This involves chopping them off at about knee height and leaving three or four buds below the cut. This is to encourage branching so that rather than one main trunk to bud onto, we end up with three or four branches and can bud multiple varieties onto one tree. The multigrafts we did on plum root stock last year are looking great and have inspired us to multibud more trees. Multibudded trees are a great use of space because you can have cross-pollinating varieties on the same tree and save the need for planting multiple trees, especially if you’re short on space.
Buds are starting to swell and seeds are beginning to germinate…a call to action in the heritage fruit tree nursery. Merv has been busy preparing the soil in the new nursery patch. Katie has been busy selling the last of the beautiful fruit trees that we grew before they come out of their winter sleep and need to be planted in the ground properly again. But now that our saved apple, quince, pear and peach seeds are starting to shoot, its all hands on deck.
This week we planted our cherry rootstock and acquired some compact apple rootstock varieties to experiment with. Along with grafting the cherries in September and budding the apples we’re hoping to experiment with creating a ‘stool bed’. Katie and I haven’t ever done a stool bed so we’re excited to learn this technique from Merv. A stool bed (from my limited understanding) is a way of trench layering a ‘mother plant’ in order to grow multiple root stock trees from a small number of ‘mothers’. This is important for cherry rootstock, which don’t grow readily from seed, and special varieties of rootstock, which you want to multiply true to type.
The plum cuttings are starting to ‘heel up’ (grow a heel/scab over them from which the roots will sprout) which means we’ll plant them out soon . The apple, peach and quince seeds are sprouting so we’ve begun to plant them out in rows. These we will grow up over summer and ‘bud’ in February with a number of different varieties for sale the following year.
We have also been cutting back the trees we budded last February, to the bud union. These trees (see pic) with different colored pipe cleaners are the plum rootstock we budded multiple varieties of plum and apricot onto. Another experiment, which so far seems to be going well…as long as we can keep track of which branch has which variety budded onto it!!
Soon it will be time to sow our green manure crop in the resting nursery patches and sow some more citrus seed in the hot house (yet another experiment). Most of the rootstock we grow, except for our experiments with cherries, citrus and small apple rootstock, we have grown ourselves. We either collect seed or take cuttings to create them, and like Merv always marvels, “it doesn’t cost you anything”! There is a lot of time and care that then goes into turning that seedling into a good fruiting tree, but Merv’s right, it doesn’t cost you anything to give it a go!
As an orchard kid I grew up familiar with the concept of grafting – I knew that all the fruit trees in the orchard had been grafted, but until I decided to take up the orchard business almost 20 years ago I had no idea how, or why. Nor did I realise that grafting has been around for literally thousands of years – in fact it’s one of the oldest horticultural practices known.
Since coming home to the farm I’ve had the chance to learn these truly ancient skills from my Dad. He’s been growing his own trees for the orchard, as well as “top-working” (changing varieties of mature trees in the orchard) for the last 60 years, so it’s been a fantastic chance to learn from a master grafter.
Hugh and I have been steadily planting, replanting and improving the orchard since we came home, and have put in literally thousands of fruit trees in that time – all of which have been grown in our on-farm nursery. It’s saved us thousands of dollars, allowed us to continuously improve the orchards, and given us the chance to learn and practise all the skills needed to grow our own rootstocks and graft the varieties we’ve needed, which we’ve incorporated into our Grow Great Fruit teaching program and workshops.
Now the orchards are pretty much all planted, and we’re handing over management of them to Ant next season, so there’s less need for the on-farm nursery. However, we didn’t want to lose it, so Sas and I are starting the Harcourt Heritage Fruit Tree Nursery!
Hang on, aren’t I meant to be retiring from farming? And surely Sas already has enough to do…so why are we starting a whole new business?
Well, over the years we’ve built up a pretty good collection of fruit varieties on the farm – 140 at last count! Of them, we’re pretty familiar with at least 80 (the rest are not fruiting yet so we don’t know them), which means we can provide pretty reliable info about them: how they do in this climate, reliable harvest dates, etc.
We’re also growing our own rootstocks from seed and cutting; this not only makes it a very low-risk and low-capital business to get off the ground, but also means the trees we’re growing from scratch are more likely to suit this climate because they’ve been grown here.
But the main reason both Sas and I decided to start a nursery is because we love growing trees, and we just couldn’t resist the opportunity to learn the nursery business from Dad, while he’s still active and interested enough to teach us!
We’re both passionate about learning the many and varied skills you need to produce healthy, vigorous organic trees, so a big part of the appeal for us is that Merv will be here to teach us everything, and oversee the whole operation.
He’s also trying new stuff all the time, which he’s passing on to us. The latest experiment has been trying to grow our own citrus rootstocks, and learning how to graft citrus trees.
Being evergreen, they’re completely different from deciduous trees, so it’s been lots of fun being a bit experimental. And so far, it seems to be working!
Another big appeal is that we know we’ll be helping to preserve some of the older heritage varieties that are hard to buy and in danger of disappearing in favour of the more modern and well-known varieties.
The very first trees are available for sale now – here’s the link to see what we’ve got (anything with MAFG or MAFGS after the name is out of our nursery) but we’ve only taken baby steps so far so there’s not many. For this year at least we’ve continued to source trees from a commercial wholesale nursery as usual, but by next year we hope to massively increase our offering, and have achieved organic certification.